Sunday, February 21, 2010

February 21: A Most Unforgettable Character

Before you meet a most unforgettable character, there is some background to tell.
This story begins just before I went to Europe for the first time at the age of 21 in 1968. I flew out of JFK after working 2 weeks as a chaperone of foreign students for the American Field Service. The AFS students had just completed one year of study in American high schools while living with American families and it was time to go home. All AFSers from the St. Louis area gathered in Alton Illinois, hopped on a bus and began a 2 week trek across the United States to Washington DC.  From there they would return home to their respective countries. There were 52 students from 28 different countries.  They named their bus, “The Yellow Submarine.”  The truth of the matter is: I went along for the ride.


Photo of me in front of the Yellow Submarine 1968
The bus trip was inherently emotional from beginning to end. Before we left Alton, the students cried their goodbyes to their American moms and dads. There were long hugs, tearful physical separations, and sad faces on the hundreds of people who had collected near the bus.  After boarding, the foreign students talked about their parents, brothers and sisters, as if the relationship started from birth.  Their thoughts would ultimately turn towards their homes of origin but not necessarily right away.  For the moment their lives spun out of control, so they glommed onto each other for dear life, like magnetized bits of ferrous oxide, creating a surreal sibling-ship that had a certain fate.  In 14 days they would separate and within a day of that separation they would be back in that part of our planet with which they were most familiar.   Certainly, the return would be dramatic for the white South African girl, Karen, who had to return home to a world where she was forbidden to socialize with people like Israel Temesgen, a black Ethiopian, with whom she traveled on the same bus for those two weeks.  

For another,  Semih Orcan,  his re-patriation was more like time travel.  He had come form a world that straddled the medieval and the modern, that was geographically divided in similar fashion, one part Europe, one part Asia. Turkey still looked like the ancient Byzantine world it had conquered 6 centuries earlier, though redressed with lots of Mosques.  Islam  pulled in one direction. Industrialization pulled in another. The struggle had been severe and extreme, so the military stepped in to  arbitrate. For a few decades before I met Semih and up until the present day, the military has hovered over the soul of Turkey like a stern big brother. Semih was to return to this world and he invited me to visit him there, which I did only a few weeks after meeting him in 1968.  Forty-two years later, I met Semih again in his Electrolux office near Taksim square in Istanbul, while on the kickabout journey to Africa for the World Cup of 2010.   Semih Orcan, whose name would sound as if he’s a half killer whale except for the fact that the Turkish “c” is pronounced like the “j” of American English, is  “A Most Unforgettable Character.” 
Semih is a Turk, born and raised near Istanbul, the son of a mother who wanted him to become an engineer.  At 16 Semi wasn’t really interested in doing what others were doing nor what his mother wanted him to do.  Semih was interested in politics, leftist politics, specifically Marxist politics.  He wanted to save the world. He also knew he was an atheist.  Many Marxists are, but given that 99% of Turkey is Muslim, he was not your usual Turk, especially at such a young age. The 17th year of his life as an AFS student, was a short, and early diversion from his chosen pathway.  One might ask, “why would a  Marxist live with his enemy?” He didn’t answer that question, but I can guess. There’s an ancient Chinese adage that one should “keep friends close and keep enemies even closer.”  The day after he returned home from the US he demonstrated with students against the social injustice of the Turkish regime.  Shortly after that he was arrested for inciting the people of his community, Belerbeyi, to resist the building of the first bridge across the Bosphorous straits. The building of that bridge would eventually displace thousands of voiceless people, making them homeless.  It would also connect Europe to what is sometimes called Asia Minor by Europeans.  It is now called Anatolia. Nothing would stand in the way of the Turkish regime’s  determination to modernize and the key was a link between the two continents.   Semih’s arrest lasted only 24 hours, but Semih wasn’t finished. He made the fateful desire, to join the Turkish People’s Liberation Army dedicated to overthrow the Turkish government and constitution. He was its youngest member. It was a communist organization inspired not by the Soviets or Maoists, but by Che Guevara.  Within a short period of returning to Turkey from the US,  Semih was roaming the central mountains of Turkey with fellow members of the Turkish Peoples Liberation Army.  They robbed a bank and even kidnapped some American military personnel. When 18 of them,including the army’s leaders, were captured,  Semih and his comrades were condemned to death by a military tribunal.  His life was saved, though, after many public protests and a review of all the sentences by the military court. His sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison, but the three leaders of the captured group were not forgiven.  They were hung.  





Some of the members of the Turkish People's Liberation Army. Semih is last on right, squatting in the bottom row.  Three of Semih's friends, the leaders of the army,  were hung.They are Hüseyin İnan (Top Row,2nd from left), Deniz Gezmiş(Top Row, last on right)  and Yusuf Aslan (bottom row, squatting, 2nd from left). The last words of Deniz Gezmis were: “Long live a wholly independent Turkey. Long live the noble ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Long live the struggle for independence by the Turkish and Kurdish people. Down with imperialism. Long live workers and villagers.”



The complete group of the Turkish People's Liberation Army that was captured in 1971 and sentenced to hang.  The sentences of all but three were commuted.  Semih Orcan is 3rd from the left in the middle row.

After four years in prison,  Semih was released.  He immediately resumed his role as a political activist, hell-bent on bringing down the Turkish regime.  He became the editor of a communist magazine that propounded ideas that threatened the foundations of the Turkish regime.  A few years passed. Semih married and fathered a child. A military coup led to an even more fascist government and Semih once again found himself in jail for the public display of his political views.  The time served was harder.  The regime was more cruel.  They were beatings and deprivation.  His mother and father would die during this period and that news was withheld.  Semih only needed to “repent,” to say he would “toe-the-line.”  He only had to sell his soul to the regime, but he held fast.  Once again, the political winds changed.  He was released in 1986 to a world he had heard nothing of for years.  He discovered his mother and father were dead.  His daughter was 5 years old and he had to figure out a way to provide.


Semih Orcan during his second imprisonment.  The photo was taken during a hunger strike.  
When I first met Semih Orcan in 1968,  I had no idea I was meeting the future Che Guevarra of Turkey.  Semih's behavior spoke for him. He was a fun-loving, playboy who had little ambition beyond soccer and girls.  Once on the bus, he immediately fell madly in love with an Australian girl even though he had just tearfully separated from his American girl-friend in St. Louis. He even “married” the Aussie in a mock ceremony performed for the benefit of his fellow ASFers.  Like the magnetized flecks of ferrous oxide I mentioned earlier, these two stuck together.  Semih always seemed to find himself in the middle of whatever social activity was happening, and those activities had nothing to do with politics.  He was passionate about soccer and was a member of the Yellow Submarine soccer team, the first soccer team I ever played on.  Yes, he was there at the beginning of my soccer career, 42 years ago.  In fact, it was his enthusiasm for the game, in part, that inspired my interest in the sport.  Of course, the bus was loaded with soccer fanatics from everywhere.  There was Adolfo from Argentina, Eduardo from Uruguay, Pietro from Italy, Yasu from Japan, Jan from Belgium, Hans from Austria, and more.  Nothing else seemed to excite this collection of foreign students from 28 different countries more than the discussion of football, except the near universal interest in the opposite sex.  There was always some time for politics, but no pre-occupation, though at the time there was plenty of reason to be interested.


Semih Orcan and me:  September, 1968, Belerbeyi.   The photo was taken just on the other side of the Bosphorus straits from Istanbul.
1968 was a year of too much politics and maybe the summer bus ride across America was a welcome respite from a very seriously troubled world.  A month earlier, “Danny the Red” inspired the students of Paris to tear up the city streets and tossed the bricks at everyone and everything that stood in their way.  Paris burned. In August, Czechoslovakia would burn, when a progressive leader, Alexander Dubček, proposed independence from Soviet Russia.  The Soviets ruthlessly crushed the Czechs. 1968 was also seriously troubled at home. In that year, both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated because they represented a challenge to the old order. Though Woodstock would not happen for another year, the flower children had already started a cultural revolution creating “hippies” and a sentiment against the Vietnam War. In 1968, American youth would turn against the Vietnam War violently.  The Chicago Seven inspired  riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago and virtually guaranteed a Republican named Richard Nixon would be the successor to Lyndon B. Johnson as President of the United States. Radicalism would rise in the United States and abroad.   The births of the Symbionese Liberation Front and the Bader Meinhoff Gang, violent groups with anarchistic agendas, were influenced by if not rooted in 1968 politics.     Malcom X was already dead, assassinated in 1965, three years earlier.  Che Guevara was already dead, hunted down and killed in the mountain forests of Bolivia one year earlier. It was a frightening, divisive time in US and world history.  People who wanted radical change were paying for that change with their lives.  Semih Orcan was willing to do the same, but for a short time, in 1968 of all years, he was taking a holiday from his politics and I met him at the end of that holiday.  When he invited me to visit him in Istanbul, it meant a serious extension of over-the-budget choices, but I was intrigued and thought “why not?”
I spent 5 days in Istanbul with Semih and his friends.  We played football.  We even attended a Fenerbache match, his team to this day.  Semih took me to the Grand Bazar of Istanbul, and a few other places the likes of which I had never seen. Prostitutes walked from behind curtains as we passed along the narrow corridors of an underground world near the Kalata bridge.  I saw an impoverished nation, dilapidated housing, a multitude of beggars in the streets, and to this day I vividly remember the probable polio victim, of undeterminable age, covered with tattered rags in various shades of gray, crawling on his elbows and knees, his head awkwardly upturned and his hand held out.  In spite of witnessing the evidence of a troubled world, a world Semih wanted to fix, what I remember most and enjoyed to the fullest was the comaraderie of Semih and his friends.  The hanging out at the Turkish bath house, the late afternoon Raki (a local drink) at the seaside bar and coffee house,  the ferry ride across the Bosphorus, were all magical moments filled with friendship and a zesty love of life I had not experienced.  The social life of the Western world seemed stale and empty after Istanbul as if it lacked vigor and commitment. Istanbul and Semih opened my eyes to a new world of ideas, new possibilities, shutting the door on complacency and satisfaction with the status quo.  My world was revolutionized in the Summer of 1968 but my trip to Europe and especially by my visit with Semih Orcan and his friends, but this is not my story, this is the story of Semih, a most unforgettable character.
Within a year of my visit, I was off to Kenya where I lived for almost six years.  From there I wrote Semih many times.  He responded only once, then stopped. He simply vanished until a couple of years ago, almost 40 years later, when I did a google search. Semih Orcan’s name popped up. He attended a reunion in the States.  There were photos. He didn’t look the same, trim, dark haired Semih.  Instead he was a paunchy, round faced guy with the same smile and ears, but without the thick, black, wavy hair. I found his email and wrote. Semih rather blandly, if not indifferently,  responded to my email with something like, “Tom, I remember you.” That was the end of the communication.
I wasn’t satisfied with the response. I searched some more.  Semih had apparently risen to the top of the corporate ladder in Electrolux.  He was the country director for this large appliance manufacturer.  Maybe, Semih had become full of self-importance and no longer had time for friends? It would be disappointing, but over the years one gets disappointed so many times by so many of life’s changes, it would just be another confirmation that things never stay the same; but I’ve also learned something else, rarely are things what they appear to be.  I was used to making mistakes by coming to conclusions too early or with too little information.  I needed more, so I made it a point to at least say “hello” to Semih on our kickabout journey to the World Cup of 2010. But there was something else!  I read a report, again from a google search, that  a Semih Orcan had been sentenced to death 1971 and later had his sentence reduced to 15 years of imprisonment. There must be hundreds or thousands of guys with that name in Turkey, I thought. That Semih might have been imprisoned for murder, bank robbery and kidnapping just didn’t add up, nor did it correlate with the image in the internet photo of a smiling, overweight Semih frollicking with friends in the States. Could it possibly be that Semih Orcan, a political prisoner who faced death,  was now a fat cat corporate type of Istanbul?  Even more confusing was the cold shoulder. Where was the affability and warmth of an old friend? What happened to the Semih who invited me to his home in Beylerbeyi in 1968?  When I called him from Greece and told him I wanted to meet with him in Istanbul on this journey,  he said we could come by his office to say hello.  He sounded a bit officious and I started to think that my worst fears were realized. Semih had become a self-important business type who just didn’t have time for friends anymore.   I was ready to have this impression confirmed.
It didn’t take long to reconcile the seemingly contradicting information that I leeched from the internet’s library of information.  Semih confirmed within minutes of our reunion that he was the one and the same enemy of the state, whom I read about,  who had morphed into the habitus of a successful business man, a one time Marxist communist who had become a highly successful, if not symbolic icon, of the very institution he has sought to destroy in his younger years.  He didn’t talk about his political convictions in 1968, he said, because they were not welcome ideas to conservative mid-Western America, especially during a decade when the Soviet Union and the United States were intensely immersed in a cold war.  However, we he returned home to Istanbul, he immersed himself fully into his cause, committed to change the world by any means necessary. After meeting a radical group of like-minded students at the University in Ankara, he took his commitment to a new level. They formed the Turkish Liberation Army and went to the East central mountains of Turkey to organize their operations.  Although I didn’t get all of the details, Semih confirmed that they robbed a bank and kidnapped American military personnel. However, there was no murder. In the aftermath of the sentences, other members of the Turkish Liberation Army made a number of attempts to free them.  Two members of the Army hijacked a plane and later surrendered to authorities in Bulgaria.  A larger contingent of the army kidnapped 4 people, 1 American and 3 Finns, who were working for NATO as scientists.  The army caught up with the group, surrounded them and killed everyone, including the hostages.


Semih Orcan and me, the blogger, February 4th, 2010, Istanbul, at a restaurant overlooking the Kalata bridge and the New Mosque
Semih was standoffish when we met In his office but warmed up to Maria and I during those first few hours together.  As he told his story, he lost some of his stiffness.  He offered us tea, not once, but three times, and advised us to never turn down tea when it’s offered in Turkey.  Over the remainder of the afternoon, he revealed details of his unusual story, one that started with a severe Marxist commitment and progressed to his current role as highly successful capitalist and entrepreneur.  He reassured me many times he hadn’t lost the fervor for his cause.  When I asked him how a devote Marxist becomes a capitalist boss, he replied with a a short aphorism that the best Marxists make the best capitalists.Perhaps because they understand how it works.  
Our first meeting in his Istanbul office was shortened by our need to find a hotel for the night and his need to get to a Fenerbache game.  He was, still, since I first met him in 1968, a fan of his beloved Fenerbache, a team I saw play in 1968 in a stadium only a short distance from Semih’s office.  Semih wanted to extend the hospitality and offered to take Maria and I to  dinner the next evening. The next day, after Maria and I made obligatory visits to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, the Spice Market and the Grand Bazar, Semih picked us up.  He arrived in a brand new Volvo driven by a neatly dressed young man, his personal driver.  We zipped across Istanbul and went to a swank restaurant that sits above the Kalata bridge with a view of the Bosphorus and the New Mosque of Istanbul.  When we arrived, Semih was welcomed like a celebrity and the restaurant owner sent a message from across the room that Semih would not be allowed to pay for this meal.  
Over the evening Semih, increasingly at ease, delved into the details of his difficult years.  He told us how three of his close friends gave up their lives for the cause.  He gave us a peek view of the pain and suffering he must have experienced but did not speak of the details.  He kept it at arms lengthas if it happened to someone else.  During those years he lost many friends, first from the hangings, later from hunger strikes.  Both of his parents died while he was in prison.  He spoke none of the pain nor of the guilt he must have felt for their deaths.  The fear their son may have or could die at any moment, their inability to get any information about his well being and the thought that he could be imprisoned for the rest of his life must have weighed heavily on his parents. Semih didn’t talk about this.  He only referenced his anger for the military that forbade him any news of the outside world, even word that his own parents had passed away.  Semih married after his first imprisonment and fathered a child.  During his second imprisonment she grew into a young girl and Semih had no knowledge of her life or well being. His wife would visit.  The prison officials told her they would pass information on but they never did.  I asked him if they beat him.  He said they did, but didn’t offer details. 
When we spoke about Semih’s life as a father, entrepreneur, business owner, he was more animated and more forthcoming.  He beamed proudly while telling us about his daughter, a successful television news reporter on national TV.  He showed us pictures of his travels around the world with his wife.
The more Semih talked the bolder he appeared to be. At the end of the dinner he asked if Maria and I could visit his home on the way towards Esphesus, our next destination. After crossing the bridge,we were going to pass close to his home on the other side of the Bosphoros, anyway.   We agreed.  When we arrived the next day, we found Semih in the flat he had purchased inside a gated community.  It over looked a newly constructed tennis court and in the distance you could see the city of Istanbul.  The apartment was spacious single level home, at least 3000 square feet in size.  The wooden floors were polished, the furniture was classical, emanating wealth and luxury. A friendly white poodle followed us about his home and Semih made “chai” for us in his kitchen where there was large sitting area for TV watching and a kitchen table for informal meals. In his home, Semih was the most animated we had seen him.  He pulled out photos that spanned his lifetime.  We followed his childhood through his AFS years in St. Louis.  Then the photo album jumped more than 15 years forward to life Semih resumed after his release from prison.   I asked him if there were any photos of those years.  He had some but they were in a different album.  In those photos we saw the metamorphosis of the young militant Semih, looking strong and assured among his comrades,  into the weathered, shrunken man who had become gaunt from hunger strikes, emotional deprivation and beatings. The pictures were but snapshot glimpses of the horror of it all.  
In his home, Semih seemed stronger than he had appeared in his office, though he was never less than a self-assured person.  He stood more, gesticulated more, sometimes with his hands at his hips akimbo, sometimes with both arms extended fully, as a practiced speaker who complimented his words with the arm motions.  At one point he brought our attention to a photo that gave me pause because it was out of context of the conversation.  “Here,” look at this.  “My mother never forgot about me.”  It was a picture of him  on the wall of the home of his American family. Semih was obviously proud.  His picture was positioned at the highest level on the wall, equal in height and next to the biological son of the Saint Louis family who called Semih “son” and “brother.”  I reflected on details of our conversations over the three days of our reunion.  He said he stopped writing me because he went to prison, but made the sidebar comment that a Marxist revolutionary couldn’t maintain a friendship with an American. He stopped writing his American family for the same reason, but they did not stop writing him even knowing he had turned against them on an  idealogical level.  There was relief on Semih’s face as he talked about his American family, especially noting that his “mother” never forgot him even though he, in a sense, did his best to forget her. He revealed this as if he didn't need to say anymore. It was a telling moment in our reunion and it was almost a signal that we had to move on.  The road waited us and Semih’s road, certainly the one less traveled by, had been traveled well enough.  


Semih Orcan in his home not far from Belerbeyi, Istanbul. February 5, 2010.
And so, I present, a most unforgettable character, even though my unforgettable character was more than willing to forget me.  Indeed, it had become his idealogical duty to do so.  I suppose his near indifference to my proposal to meet again after so many years was just a contextual continuation of the little “box” he had put me into.  Yes, I was still there among his photos, arm in arm, naive, if not simply ignorant of the world that so troubled my friend that he could not share his thoughts with me.  Perhaps he figured it was just a waste of time to tell me who he was in 1968.  Perhaps he preferred me to believe  he was the happy, carefree soul of the Yellow Submarine. Perhaps he enjoyed the dual nature of his roles as Marxist revolutionary and capitalist playboy.   And now there is more inscrutability.   He avoided telling me what it is like to have lived the tortured life of one so deeply dedicated to a cause?  Semih nearly lost his life as he lost many of the comrades.  He sacrificed his relationship with his wife, his daughter, his father,his mother.  He may have contributed to the despair and desperation of a biological mother and father who must have been sick with worry over his imprisonment.  He voluntarily left them to live in a world that hated everything their son stood for. He turned his back on me I found out.  He turned his back on those who accepted him into their home and called him "son" and "brother."   


Why did Semih Orcan invite me to visit him in 1968 to his strange, conflicted world, where, divided like his country, East from West, he embraced two diametrically opposed groups of people into his life, keeping one a secret from the other? How does a devote Marxist socialist, parade about the world disguised as a successful, capitalist boss, chauffered about as are the privileged elite who benefit disproportionately from the capitalistic practices he so passionately attempted to stomp out?  These are paradoxes too big for me to resolve. They are like the riddle of the Sphinx, too dangerous to answer, and I am certainly not, like Oedipus, either bold enough or smart enough to answer them. So, I shall travel on, as a wise traveler should do when faced with such difficult questions, and save myself so that I shall live another day, and hopefully tell, yet again, another story.